Public services 'should share buildings to save costs'

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Indy Politics

Public services like police, health clinics, fire brigades and jobcentres should consider moving in with local councils to save money, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said today.

His comments came as he endorsed a new report suggesting local authorities could save £7 billion a year - the equivalent of £316 for every council tax payer - by rationalising their property portfolios, selling off offices and town halls and sharing buildings with other services.

The report by the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum, chaired by Conservative MP Matthew Hancock, found that the biggest savings could be made "when all public services are provided from the same location", though it acknowledged that this could meet resistance from some bodies.

Speaking at the report's launch in the House of Commons, Mr Pickles said that putting all services in the same building would not only save money but make life easier for people looking for help. Voluntary organisations could also be housed alongside public services, to ensure that advice of all kinds was available.

"Sensible use of public money demands that we do start to share public buildings," said the Local Government Secretary.

"This is about ensuring that somebody wanting help, assistance and advice goes to one place. It doesn't matter whether it is the health service, the police, the district or county council, why should they have to take a basic lesson in civics to know where to go?

And he added: "The future lies with the public sector getting together - not just local government but the health service and the Department for Work and Pensions - to offer something better to the public."

Today's report, published after a six-month inquiry involving leaders of the public and private sectors, found that local authorities own some £250 billion worth of buildings.

This makes up around two-thirds of the state's total £370 billion property portfolio, which costs £25 billion a year to run.

Managing property effectively could cut the space needed by councils by 30%, leading to lower costs, lower carbon emissions and better services, said the report.

With councils facing 26% reductions in government funding over the next four years, local authorities are facing significant pressure to save money, requiring "innovative" use of their existing assets.

The report hailed the examples of Birmingham, which is planning to cut back from 55 to eight office buildings, and Suffolk, which has identified £1.6 million in reductions to property costs this year after a survey of all public buildings in the county.

Public sector buildings currently provide staff with an average of 14.5 square metres - well above the Government standard of 12 - the report found. And it said that local government stood to save up to £200 annually for every square metre reduction in space occupied.

The report recommended the creation of a central property unit in every local authority to tackle the inefficient use of space, and said other public and voluntary sector bodies should be invited to join councils in developing a common management solution to ensure the best use of property.

Mr Hancock said: "The best local authorities have reduced space by up to one third, and what really surprised me is that they all reported that when this happened, they felt it improved services.

"We estimate that the total savings potential if everybody adopted best practice is for savings of £7 billion - equivalent to £316 per council tax payer. I think that's a very significant saving and shows the importance of the sorts of technique contained in this report."